Authors: James A. Moore
Tags: #Epic, #War, #Seven Forges, #heroic, #invasion, #imperial power, #Fantasy
JAMES A. MOORE
The Blasted Lands
Seven Forges, Book Two
Table of Contents
The wind howled furiously, but it did not howl alone.
The Pra-Moresh joined into the fury, their voices breaking into warped laughter, sobs of sorrow and snarls of rage.
Andover Lashk listened to the noises and gritted his teeth to stop himself from screaming. His heart stuttered in his chest and his stomach clenched into a fiery fist. He had heard of the beasts, but never seen one before.
That was about to change and he knew it.
His iron hands wrapped around the long haft of the hammer and blade he’d forged into a proper weapon. He felt the familiar weight and concentrated on unwinding the tension in his arms.
Jost, the girl who’d taught him the most about unarmed combat, said the secret of fighting was to be relaxed: tension slowed the body down and he would need all of his speed.
The cackling and weeping of the things came closer and danced around him in a slow circle. The Pra-Moresh fought in packs. He knew that much. He could see shapes but they were barely visible through the dust and snow whipped around by the storming air of the Blasted Lands.
Something charged from his right. It was a shambling mountain of fur and claws and he saw the mouth of the thing open in a feral grin. Andover pushed back across the frozen ground with his left leg and slid his weight onto the right counterpart. The paws of the thing swept the air where he’d been a moment before and he used his left leg to kick back a second time, sliding across the icy surface a few more inches.
The shape came closer and he swept the weighted end of his hammer back, letting the balancing point swing up toward the beast.
A sound like a weeping man came from the thing and it swatted the air a second time to see if the point of the weapon was a serious threat. The paw slapped the sharp tip knocking it aside easily.
Which was exactly what Andover hoped for. He used the momentum of the attack to help him bring the heavy hammer’s bladed head around in a hard arc and added his own meager body mass to the swing.
The impact ran up his arms and the shriek of pain from the beast set his teeth rattling in their sockets. The thing staggered back, shaking its brutal head. Something vital had been chopped. A stream of blood ran from the nightmare’s face. While it was moving around in pain, he brought the blade up a second time and shattered the monster’s jaw.
More of the things were coming. He couldn’t tell how many, only that they were there. It was their damned voices; they sounded like they were everywhere at once. A wall of fur came from the dusty air and he stepped toward it, sweeping the heavy hammerhead up and around in a savage arc. The hammer bounced off the back of the Pra-Moresh and an instant later Andover was knocked to the ground as the monster loomed over him. His head hit the hard, frozen earth and his vision faded to gray.
The monster swept a paw at him and he blocked, the reaction more instinct and luck than anything else. And the hammer, his weapon, was knocked into the distance.
A wailing sob of victory came from above and the vast mouth of the thing dropped toward his face. Andover reacted instinctively and shoved his hands forward to protect his features.
The iron fingers of his hands caught the teeth and lips of the Pra-Moresh and he grunted as the thing tried to bite down. Hot, stinking saliva bled across his metallic fingertips as he strained. He was not strong enough to stop the mouth from closing, but his hands proved too much for the monster’s teeth, which broke off against the living iron.
The beast pulled back, no doubt surprised by the unexpected pain. While it was shaking its face and working its jaw, Andover reached up and grabbed the thick fur of its throat in his hands and squeezed with all of his might.
Had his hands been flesh it might have made no difference, but metal fingers clenched and punched through meat and fur and cartilage and shattered the monster’s windpipe.
It reared back again, lumbering to the side and gagging, trying to breathe, while Andover pushed himself backward and looked for any method of escape. It was impossible to say if he could get away. As for weapons he could use, there was nothing. The first of the demons was alive and recovering and enraged. The second was coughing and gagging-
The thing fell down and shuddered, but did not rise. The torso of the monster vibrated and it thrashed in a frenzy, but did not get back up.
Madness. Andover felt a grin peeling his lips apart.
He rose to his knees and looked around. There were two of the nightmares near him and neither was making noises now. He tried to see his hammer but it was lost in the storm.
The bow was still slung across his back. The quiver of arrows still contained a few though some had escaped when he was thrown down.
He drew an arrow and slid the bow from his back; struggling past the heavy fur cloak that stopped him from freezing to death.
The dust slapped across his eyes, making him blink furiously. The first of the Pra-Moresh was eyeing him angrily, its ruined muzzle bleeding a constant stream of steaming hot blood. The second convulsed violently and then stopped moving.
He took careful aim at the first of the creatures and drew back the bowstring, breathing as he’d been taught. The shaggy head continued to face him, but the monster did not charge. Not yet at least.
The arrow cut through the air and punched deep into the flaring nose of the thing. He had been aiming for the eye. The Pra-Moresh reared up, bellowing-crying-giggling, and then came down on all fours, charging him, a mountainous heaving bulk that would surely crush him.
He drew and fired and missed. And then it was there. The body of the thing plowed into him and carried him easily from the frozen ground. Andover let out a groan that was lost under the noises from the brute.
The great arms wrapped around him and began squeezing. Pain ripped into his sides and forced the air from his lungs and his hands reached, sought what he had previously missed with his arrow. The fingers caught one of the dark eyes and he dug as hard as he could. The other hand found the fletching from the arrow buried in the nose and he pushed down with all he could muster.
To call his hands miracles was not an exaggeration. The hands were a gift from the Sa’ba Taalor’s god, Truska-Pren, their god of iron. In his short lifetime Andover Lashk had never had much need of gods but one had granted him new hands when his had been ruined by the city-guard. The hands were metal. No doubting that, but he could feel with them, and they moved under his command. So he felt the raw juices that vomited from the ruptured eye of his enemy and he felt the arrow drive deeper before it bent and broke under the pressure from his grip.
Those sensations were miracles. The way the Pra-Moresh threw him like a horse might throw a kitten was simple physics. The beast screamed. Andover screamed and sailed and tried to find the way to land without hurting himself.
Some rules are simply universal: When kings call to arms, the soldiers fall in. That is one such rule.
When the fighting was done and the soldiers from Fellein had fallen, King Tuskandru looked down upon his enemies and allowed a grim smile. He was physically exhausted, battered, bruised and cut in many places. Three of his people were badly wounded and many more were injured to the point where they would need to mend before they could easily fight again. They had been outnumbered four to one. Injuries were unavoidable.
Still, the enemy lay dead and dying. He called to Brodem, his mount, and the great beast padded over to him, panting and well fed on the horses of the enemy. He patted the bloodied muzzle of his ally and then reached into his saddlebags, fishing until he found the great horn he’d wrapped carefully before the trip began.
Tusk blew four hard, sharp notes into the air and felt the winds change as the sounds called out. He did not wait for a response. He knew that if the gods willed it, the soldiers would come to him.
The battle was over. They had won. In time there would be a victory feast. For now however there were other considerations. Tusk called to Blane and Ehnole to pass the word around. The bodies would be taken home. All of them.
The ride home to the Taalor Valley was uneventful. Saa’thaa moved across the broken landscape without complaint and they only stopped when nature demanded or to give Swech a chance to slide into her furs and armor. The air was cold, the winds were violent and while her mount might easily endure the elements, she preferred to wear protection.
They rode past the remains of several horses and the broken weapons of different fighters. Swech called Saa’thaa to a halt and examined the find carefully, reading the signs of the battle. Her people and the soldiers from Fellein. There were no bodies from either side to be found, but she would have been surprised if there had been.
The fight had been brutal and short. She had no doubt of that.
She would have been there for it, but the Daxar Taalor had given her other orders and one does not question the will of the gods. Whatever she missed was secondary to the demand to kill not only an Emperor, but also his military minds. Only one was spared and she was grateful to the gods for that.
She had aimed the blade for Merros Dulver’s heart, fully intending to kill him much as the notion hurt her. And instead the voice of great Wrommish filled her being and told her to spare him. The blade that should have ended his life instead merely cut across his jaw and while he recovered from that she fled the room.
Being captured was not within the plans of the gods. She made sure she was not taken.
It was exactly that simple for her.
So now she rode home, to the valley of the Seven Forges and she looked at their guiding light as she made her way and felt her heart swell with joy. The dark clouds meant nothing in comparison to the warm glow of the volcanic mountains that lit their underbellies.
Soon enough the vast mountains dwarfed the raging storms and sheltered them from the harsh winds. The light from above reflected down onto them and warmed their flesh. The great black shape of Durhallem welcomed them home. They rode through the obsidian tunnel beneath the vast mountain and into the valley proper. The others she had traveled with were there, and they had gathered a large force to help them. A few people nodded as she passed, but there were no greetings and the work continued for the gathered. They did not have time to rest and neither did she. Wrommish demanded more of her and she obeyed.
Wrommish was one of her favored gods. The Daxar Taalor demanded that they be served and the Sa’ba Taalor served without hesitation. All that was right in their world was a gift of the gods. To do other than serve them was foolish and wasteful. And while each of her people served the gods, they were not served equally. Inevitably one god or another was favored by individuals. The philosophies of Wrommish and Paedle were the ones that she liked best. Wrommish believed above all else that the body was a weapon. Paedle’s philosophies often agreed. Paedle stated that war did not need to be a business of sword against sword when a properly placed dagger or bared hand could determine a victory or win a battle before it was fought.
Swech believed that the greatest weapons were the body and the mind. Together they could accomplish amazing feats. Wrommish and Paedle best exemplified her beliefs and so she followed them above all others.
And now she would either be rewarded for her beliefs or she would be punished. She had no reason to believe she would be punished – except that Merros Dulver was alive and she couldn’t say with complete faith that the gods wanted him that way. The heart can lie to the mind – time would tell.
The Taalor Valley was as lush and green as she remembered and the air was sweet after the acrid stench of the Blasted Lands. She eagerly peeled away the excess layers of fur and armor when they stopped to eat. The sky was clear for the first time since they’d entered the Blasted Lands and she looked at the sun and reveled in the warmth it caressed her flesh with.